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Amador County Planners look at medicinal pot ordinance

By Marcia Oxford

An item dominating the Feb. 8 agenda for the Amador County Planning Commission was a request for a use permit for a medical marijuana dispensary and request for variance from a county code to allow the dispensary to be located within 1,000 feet of a residence.

The dispensary is proposed at the former site of a Mexican restaurant and then a Mexican import shop on Depot Road in Martell.

While nearby residents and business people appeared sympathetic to the need for such a dispensary, they nevertheless objected to the request for the variance location. Planning Commission directors ultimately recommended denying approval of the requests which will next go before the Board of Supervisors.

The applicant can appeal the decision via a written request with the clerk of the board by 5 p.m. Feb. 18. Applicant Mike Koll, representing Med Weed of Amador County, was represented by attorney Jeffrey Kravitz.

Susan Grijalva, planning commission director, updated the board on the issue. On June 15, 2004, supervisors adopted an urgency ordinance which amended the county code by establishing regulations for operation of medical cannabis dispensaries. The code was adopted in an effort to be consistent with Senate Bill 420, which allows counties and other governing bodies to adopt and enforce rules and regulations within the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

In October last year, Med Weed requested a use permit and variance from the county code section 19.84.060B of the urgency ordinance. Two residences and a hotel are located closer than the code´s required 1,000 foot distance from the site; also nearby are a veterinary clinic, several vacant lots zoned medium manufacturing and Sierra Pacific Industries property. Planning Commission staff recommended that the variance not be granted based on county code and further, that granting of such a variance would authorize a use or activity not otherwise expressly authorized.

Grijalva noted that staff has an additional concern that the application, if granted, could allow a use determined by the district attorney to be illegal since adoption of the urgency ordinance. The county Technical Advisory Committee also reviewed the proposal last November and expressed an opinion that a variance from the “Mandatory Locational Standard” of the regulations could not be granted.

When the supervisors passed the ordinance, “It was clear they understood that state voters overwhelmingly determined that marijuana should be available to qualified patients who need it for their medical care,” Kravitz said. “That is the position of the state of California. The law exists to encourage other states, indeed the federal government, to allow the use of medical marijuana. It established the rights of qualified patients to get medical marijuana.

“We spoke to people in the planning office, but we could not find any location in the county that would meet the ordinance. We are not asking for a change in zoning. We´re asking for a variance from regulations passed by the supervisors so that one aspect would allow for the opening of one medical marijuana dispensary in the county.

“I think the planning commission should approve this application and allow it to go before the board of supervisors where it can be addressed head-on,” Kravitz continued. “People who need medical marijuana now have to go on the black market. Many (of them) are elderly and they need to come to some place that is safe, off the beaten track and where there is parking.”

Among speakers opposed to granting of the variance were Kathie Stenberg, who owns a house next to the proposed site. She objected on grounds of a safety issue based on two-way traffic on narrow Depot Road which “can´t handle two cars at one time,” she said. “I would be very happy to see it come in, but it doesn´t need to go in a dark area of the county. I don´t know whether it creates crime, but it´s better not have it around my house.”

Ron Arnese, owner of Cold Springs Excavating, who has rented property from Antonio Hernandez (former owner of Antonio´s) for 18 years, said, “All I know is I´ve been broken into three different times. I don´t know whether someone buying medical marijuana would do something like that. If you drive on Depot Road, you would be confused. People who live in the hotel park any way they can. Maybe that marijuana deal is a necessary thing, but why have it in Timbuktu?” he said, alluding to the site´s relative isolation and dark surroundings.

Janet Sutherland, a Depot Road resident, recalled studies conducted at a San Francisco nursing school some years back at which time it was determined that the crime rate increased on the opening of a medical marijuana center. “I´ve lived in my residence almost six years and the area is already problematic,” she said. “A house has been vandalized. Mr. Arnese has had a crime rate with his trucks. The sheriff´s department has its hands full with the hotel next door. I´ve had no problems, but we don´t need extra traffic. It´s poorly lit and we´re pretty much asking for trouble. You should be looking for an expansive area with a lot of lighting.”

Sutherland suggested supervisors establish a committee with the sheriff´s department and health department and recommended such a committee publish its findings on suitable locations in the county.

Another Depot Road resident, Brian Jorgensen, concurred with the previous speakers, saying, “I would rather not take my chances of a higher crime area.”

Commissioners also received a letter from Jack G. Frost of Sierra Pacific Industries, who opposed the site based on his observation that “The entire Martell area is being developed into a major retail center and we feel this proposed use would have a negative impact on this development.” He further suggested the code section variance not be waived and recommended “this type of facility would be more suitably located next to other medical facilities within the Jackson-Martell area (with) necessary street access and parking to handle the traffic generated by the facility.”

Commissioner Barry Risberg commented, “The issue of a medical marijuana dispensary has not been around long enough to know the cause and effect relationship to crime.” Acknowledging he voted on the state ballot for medical marijuana, he suggested the issue would be resolved at the supervisor level, whether or not the applicant´s requests were approved by the planning commission.

Andy Bryne, commission chair, asked if there were any other potential locations in the county, to which Grijalva replied, “There are no existing buildings except one that does not suit their needs or meet their security requirements. There are locations but no buildings.” New commissioner John Gonsalves, noting he has not enough experience regarding the environmental impact on a one-way road, said he would have a difficult time with the adequacy of a Mitigated Negative Declaration.

In other business, Bryne was appointed as a representative to the Amador County Transportation Committee´s bike and pedestrian trail committee.

Reprinted with permission from Amador Ledger-Dispatch